Nobody illustrates the Goan casino dilemma better than the current Goa CM Manohar Parrikar who was swept to power with the first clear majority in two decades, 18 months ago, after he had campaigned on a plank which promised to close down all casinos in the state because they were ‘corrupting’ Goan culture. Once in power, BJP’s Parrikar changed his tune citing its indispensability towards the Goan economy.
Adding mirth to the whole fracas, members of the erstwhile Congress government, now in the opposition, are now demanding the closure of the casinos! This is what Parrikar told this writer on Monday: “The opposition wants to stop casinos so that the revenue collection of the government suffers.” The reference is to the tight financial conditions of the Goa government after the ban on mining.
So the casinos, 19 of them, carry on. Of the 19, five are off-shore casinos, on boats anchored in the river Mandovi, Panjim, while the others are all in five-star resorts, the only places allowed to have casinos. Gambling is on 24 hours in all the casinos.
Over the years, the casinos, which initially started with gaming machines, have now moved into live Vegas-style gambling, with high stakes card games and tournaments.
The Deltin Royale, for example, hosts the DR Cup Tournament at its Poker Room from September 25-28, with a total guaranteed pot of Rs29 lakh. The high-roller events have a minimum pot of Rs16 lakh. The Poker Room has 13 “state-of-the-art” poker tables with the “best dealers trained to international standards”.
With casinos often in the news for the wrong reasons, casino officials are reluctant to speak about the happenings inside or their clientele. Officials, however, say that the business has picked up with the depreciating rupee. "Most of our clients are from north India. With the depreciating rupee, travelling abroad is expensive and it's cheaper to fly to Goa for gambling," said an official, refusing to be named.
According to him, each of the three functioning off-shore casinos get a footfall of around a 1,000 visitors per day.
Visitors have to report at the casino counters along the Panjim riverfront and are then taken on speedboats to the anchored casinos in the river, James Bond-style..
Ashwin, a tourist from Mumbai who visited the Deltin Royale recently, says, “I’m a regular visitor to Goa, but had never been to a casino, so this time I went to the Royale and was stunned! Great food, wide variety of snacks, alcohol on the house, beautiful ambience, great crowd. You get a yacht ride just for Rs 1,500 (weekdays). I spent seven amazing hours at this place. You can just sit there watching the expressions on people’s faces as they lose or win. In fact, the feeling of being in a casino in India itself is worth it.”
Says another first-timer, “It’s sophisticated, fun, cool. The gambling, though, comes at a steep price. There are some games that start at Rs100, while most others start at Rs1000.”
With Goa becoming a popular weekend getaway, it is not uncommon for gamblers to spend even a crore in one night.
According to an industry insider, each of the offshore casinos sees average net profit earnings of Rs1.75 crore per day, while each of the 10-odd onshore casinos earn Rs3.75 lakh to Rs4 lakh per day. Official figures peg the turnover of Goan casinos at Rs1,000 crore annually. The Goa government received Rs135 crore in taxes in 2012-13, apart from Rs17.96 crore from entry fees, Rs57.5 crore from license fees, Rs53.29 crore from entertainment tax, Rs2crore as VAT and Rs2.2 crore as excise license fees.
Ironically, all the fees and taxes were hiked when the new Goa government came to power last year. Some of the casinos even had to shut down in the resultant shake-out.
Says Shrinivas Nayak, director of Casino Pride, “From six off-shore, there are now just three operating on the river.”
Narendra Punj, MD of the company which operates Deltin Royale, says, “It’s a struggle. It is a question of survival.”
Moreover, Goa has to compete with other casino destinations like Macau and Nepal. "These destinations have direct connectivity, cheaper flights and offer five-star hotel rooms for Rs3,000. Room rents in star hotels are much higher in Goa — around Rs6,000 per room night in the monsoon season," said Nayak. Just like in real gambling, only some players will come out trumps.